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PoliticsMiddle East

Mixed reaction to historic agreement between Israel and UAE

August 15, 2020

The overwhelming losers of the historic US-brokered agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic ties are likely to be the Palestinian people.

US President Donald Trump
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/A. Harnik

After a rapprochement over about a decade, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have now decided to establish diplomatic relations. In the coming week, they are expected to sign bilateral agreements for future cooperation on agriculture, food security, cyber security, tourism, technology and trade. The two states have also agreed to initiate direct flights between their airports on top of establishing reciprocal embassies.  

The historic agreement brokered by the US and announced by US President Donald Trump did not come out of the blue but is the result of several years of closer ties. Israeli athletes accompanied the Israeli Minister for Sports and Culture Miri Regev to Abu Dhabi in 2018 and according to Israeli television channel i24News, in July 2019, military officials from UAE travelled to Israel in order to take a closer look at some US-made F-35 jets. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that the UAE bought two intelligence-gathering aircraft from an Israeli businessman, which have since been used to spy on Iranian airspace.

It had also been planned for some time that Israel would take part in the Expo 2020 world fair that was due to take place in the UAE's most populous city Dubai this October, but has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the first world fair to be hosted by an Arab state.

In April 2019, in an interview with The National, an English-language daily newspaper published in the UAE, the country's foreign minister, Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash, lamented the fact that the two states did not enjoy diplomatic ties. "Many, many years ago, when there was an Arab decision not to have contact with Israel, that was a very, very wrong decision, looking back,” he said.

Read more: Iran, Turkey slam UAE over agreement with Israel

Israel no longer perceived as the "enemy"

The situation has changed considerably explained Eytan Gilboa from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv in a recent article in the Israeli English-language daily The Jerusalem Post. "People across much of the Sunni Muslim Arab world don't perceive Israel anymore as an enemy, but rather as an ally."

He said that the agreement would "increase the legitimacy of Israel's existence as a Jewish state in the Middle East."

"The threat both countries are facing is Iran's quest for hegemony and domination in the Middle East via violence, terrorism, military interventions, and nuclear weapons, from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Yemen," he added.

Iran, which is predominantly Shi'a, and some Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been conducting more or less overt proxy conflicts in the region over the decades.

"The Arab Gulf states are especially prone to the Iranian threats. The Israel-UAE alliance is expected to more effectively deal with Iran."

The agreement also sends out a message to the Palestinians, Gilboa added, implying that for some Sunni Arab states the tension with Iran had overshadowed the plight of the Palestinians.

"Blocking the Iran threats is more important than the Palestinian cause," he said.

Read more: Opinion: Israel-UAE deal means goodbye to independent Palestinian state 

"Strategic stupidity"

As could be expected, Iran has criticized the agreement strongly, with the foreign ministry saying that it was a "strategic stupidity" that would "undoubtedly strengthen the Axis of Resistance in the region." The Turkish Foreign Ministry was also sharp in its criticism: "While betraying the Palestinian cause to serve its narrow interests, the UAE is trying to present this as a kind of act of self-sacrifice for Palestine," it said in a statement.

But these two states, the major non-Arab states in the region, are themselves weakened and suffering from economic crises. They will not be of much help to the Palestinian people. Moreover, they are themselves increasingly isolated. Iran's only ally is President Bashar al-Assad's war-torn Syria. Otherwise, Tehran depends on a network of proxies, the biggest of which is the Shi'a Islamist militant group Hezbollah, which itself has now become the target of angry protests after a catastrophic ammonium nitrate explosion devastated the capital Beirut.

Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also not done itself any favors with its ambitious foreign policy dreams. Egypt in particular accuses Ankara of neo-Ottomanism. 

Read moreGermany, France urge Israel to reconsider West Bank annexation plans

"Betrayal of Palestinian cause"

The Palestinian people are, therefore, quite alone. President Mahmoud Abbas called the agreement an "aggression" against the Palestinian people and a "betrayal of their cause."

The Palestinian Arabic-language daily Al-Quds described the agreement as a "dangerous development which symbolized the UAE's departure from the Arab-Islamic consensus," effectively giving Israel a green light to go ahead with its settlement policy and encouraging it to ignore the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. It said that although the UAE had declared that the agreement would put a stop to Israel's annexation plans, "the opposite was true."

UAE Foreign Minister Garwash said that the agreement had driven away the phantom of annexation. But the German-Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann said in an interview with German broadcaster ARD that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had admitted that the annexation had only been postponed temporarily.

"Annexation is his plan and he will push it through. Not through formal action but gradually with his settlement policy," he said.

The US and the EU seemed to welcome the agreement. After talking with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi on Friday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that the deal could give a "new impetus" towards peace in the region. He added thatit was good that the government had suspended its annexation plans.

Other states, such as Oman, Bahrain and Sudan, are expected to follow in the UAE's footsteps and establish agreements normalizing relations with Israel.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East